Whose Community Is It Anyways? A Prince Edward Islander’s View of Banff

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One of the main reasons I was interested in the Banff workshop was my ongoing interest in the ways communities are affected by tourism-driven economies. I come by this naturally, as I was born and raised on Prince Edward Island. Much of my academic research deals with the way my fellow Islanders have responded to the provincial government’s post-war emphasis on developing the tourism sector. This has resulted in the tourism economy supplanting the province’s old economic mainstays of agriculture and the fisheries. However, this transition did not go smoothly. In the summer of 1971 the National Farmers Union tied up highway traffic in an effort to demonstrate their displeasure with agriculture’s diminishing role. It was lampooned in 1973 by the Brothers and Sisters of Cornelius Howatt, who saw the efforts to replace the province’s primary industries with bed and breakfast operations as an affront to the “Island way of life.” Even the 1979 election of Premier Angus MacLean is, in part, related to the backlash. MacLean, a war hero/sheep farmer, came to power on the strength of his “rural renaissance” platform, which committed the provincial government to the continued existence of the traditional family farm.

How does this relate to Banff? In some ways, not much at all. Since its founding, Banff’s economy has been driven by the dollars of visitors seeking out its unique charms. As such, it has not had to suffer from the same “break” that Prince Edward Island has. This is not to say, however, that Banff’s relationship with tourism has been problem-free. While we often think of Banff as a community of transients – that is, short-term residents serving the needs of tourists – this is not accurate. It has a small but stable year-round population, some of whom can trace their family lineage to the community’s founding. Life inside of a national park, however, leads to a strange set of circumstances. For instance, there is the tricky problem of balancing the interests of the various players. Full-time residents have one set of concerns, while the operators of tourist attractions and services have a very different set of priorities. To cloud the issue, some of these business people are local residents, while others are not. Meanwhile, all of this occurs inside of a national park, which has its own set of priorities.

One example of these conflicting interests is that of land ownership. Development in Banff is restricted, not only by its geography but also by the existing management plan. Consequently, while most communities can continue to develop “out,” Banff has very limited parameters. The problem with this is that having a home in Banff is extremely desirable, given the natural beauty and charm of the area. With development limited and an outstanding demand for what exists, housing costs have skyrocketed in recent years. This prevents young families from moving into the area, depriving it of a necessary demographic. Furthermore, the problem arises of wealthy non-residents purchasing homes that are rarely utilized. This further aggravates housing costs, and these homeowners fail to make a notable contribution to community life. This problem is comparable to Prince Edward Island, where the prime real estate is owned by non-residents. The province’s shoreline, for example, is held almost exclusively by non-residents, thus driving up the costs of the land and pricing it beyond the reach of most Island residents. The accumulation of land by non-residents is a problem that the province has faced dating back to the inception of British rule in the late-eighteenth century. Resolved in the 1860s via mass civil disobedience – citizens simply refused to pay their rent fees – the problem became acute once again in the early-1970s. While restrictions were placed on non-resident ownership, this simply served to delay the inevitable. Banff has likewise placed restrictions on home ownership within is borders, limiting it to those who own or are employed within town limits. However, I fear that over time this will prove to be a rather porous regulation, akin to that seen on Prince Edward Island.

Maintaining a healthy, year-round community in Banff is a clear concern for this observer. These are the people that are interested in the particular aspects that render Banff unique. Without the presence of these individuals, I fear that business interests may run roughshod over the grounds. When tourism operators are too powerful, much of what makes an area so special tends to be abandoned in the pursuit of increased profits. At least that’s my perspective, coming from Prince Edward Island.

Featured image: Flower beds and tourists at Lake Louise; Banff National Park, 1996. Photo by LBM1948 on Wikimedia Commons.

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